. . . Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Lately I’ve been thinking back to an earlier part of my life and using those experiences as a lens for our current efforts around school system change. For about ten years, I was a teacher with Outward Bound. OB’s name has nautical roots—when a ship leaves the safety of the harbor and heads out in to the unknown it is said to be outward bound. Their motto “To Serve, To Strive, and Not to Yield” comes from the amazing Ulysses by Tennyson (as does the quote above). It is about balance—between self-reliance and being part of a larger community; between tenacity and sensible self-denial; and between compassion for others and taking care of one’s own. So, with that in mind…
Let’s take a moment to celebrate. I am truly excited by our opportunity to begin the process of public school system reform that is possible through SB 909. All is not fixed, everything didn’t go our way, there is so much to do, but there are moments of beauty in small victories. As I often find myself saying these days, we now have the possibility of possibilities. Once we’re done with this brief self-congratulation, let’s get to work.
One thing I know is that commitment is not enough. In my heart of hearts I believe that we are all committed to our kids—the work ahead will require determined single-mindedness, and it will certainly take a deep collaboration that is unusual and unlike any other we have attempted. It is not left and right, rural and urban, black or white, across this or that aisle—it is a moral imperative and it is for our kids. We are leaving the safety of this moment, the security of this small but important victory and heading into uncharted waters. We must build and maintain unwavering collective capacity for systemic change and we can accept no excuses. The legislative session that brought us to this time was filled with moments of political will, charismatic leadership, and fierce advocacy, while we also glimpsed petty infighting, fear mongering, misinformation, and other devils of our nature.
Story #1: I teach International Relations at West Linn High, a course juniors and seniors can take to fulfill a social studies requirement. Part way through the spring semester, I was discouraged to realize that over half my 100 IR students were missing assignments. Considering we’d averaged only one homework assignment per week, and a couple of the assignments were quite easy, I was troubled. It is my goal only to assign homework I believe will benefit students, and when they don’t complete homework it hampers their ability to succeed.
So with complete parental and administrative support, I sprang a surprise on students: If you do not complete every assignment, you will not pass this class. Even if you’re earning a passing grade, if you have even one missing assignment, I will enter “incomplete” in the gradebook and you will not receive a credit. Some were shocked, realizing that no credit could mean not graduating.
I was nervous about the new policy. I wondered whether all students would pull through, and if they didn’t, if I’d be willing to be the one obstacle that stood between them and graduation. I wondered whether at crunch time a parent would challenge the policy.
The latest federal data show what parents who care about education in our state already know: Oregon is underfunding public schools compared to the rest of the nation, by a significant seven percent.
Combine this with a lingering, abysmal economy that is creating desperate circumstances for many, untenable PERS retirement benefits, and falling tax rates—Americans are paying the lowest tax rates since 1950—and here’s what it looks like on the ground in our schools.
Fields of study that provide the skills students need for 21st century jobs are being eliminated, and teachers of that coursework let go, meaning it will take years to restore them, if stable funding is ever restored. Given the last hired, first fired logic of our system, talented young teachers are reading the tea leaves and getting out of the education profession. “Non-essentials”—things we used to take for granted such as school sports, art, music, foreign language, vocational classes—are becoming dependent on private funds or going the way of the dodo.
Source of table at right: USA Today, 5/12/2010
At Summit High School in Bend, a seven-period schedule is being considered, up from a block schedule with four daily periods. Teachers who taught six out of eight periods this past year would now teach six out of seven, reducing their prep time while their work loads increase. Due to layoffs, one high school math teacher will be teaching four separate subjects—calculus, contextual geometry, financial algebra and Math 1—in six classes with roughly 210 students. A science teacher will be loaded up with an electronics section, two biology courses, and three physics sections, including an AP course.
There is so much education research out there focused on the myriad details that it’s hard to keep track of it all. But the latest study that’s generating buzz—and standing out—in reform circles zooms out and examines education from a big picture, global perspective.
Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: An American Agenda for Education Reform by Marc S. Tucker is a report that actually stems from the last two chapters of a book that will be published in September by Harvard Education Press. The project began when Education Secretary Arne Duncan asked the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development to study the education strategies that other countries have used to outpace us.
American students are now ranked below those in almost 40 developed nations in terms of science, math and reading according to a study by the Programme for International Student Assessment, and this new report shows that the most popular tactics in the US—like smaller class sizes and charter schools—are not making the significant difference that has been hoped for.
The National Center on Education and Economy, a Washington DC think tank, picked up the work and focused on education systems in the highest performing countries—Finland, Singapore, Japan, China (Shanghai), and Canada (Ontario)—to see what we may learn from their successes.
Many of the current discussions around public school improvement have focused on teachers: How to evaluate them, and how to help them improve.
I had the opportunity to meet recently with the principal of my son’s school and ask her a few questions about how teacher evaluations are handled in a private school. My interview was with Merrill Hendin, head of Portland Jewish Academy.
Heather Penner: What is your general framework for evaluating teachers?
Merrill Hendin: It’s an evolving process, based on Charlotte Danielson’s “Enhancing Professional Practice”.
HP: How often are teachers evaluated?
MH: There are two official classroom visits per year, and two sit-down meetings per year in which we discuss a teacher’s professional goals for him- or herself for that year. But in reality, evaluations are much more frequent and fluid than that, as supervisors drop in and observe the classrooms frequently. It is important to find a balance between being organic and yet still being thoughtful and systematic.
The first three years that a teacher is with PJA, she is on the “observation track” and teaching performance is watched more closely. Beyond the third year, supervision is more focused on professional growth—helping teachers with their own professional development goals for the year.
At the end of the year, both the teacher and the supervisor each writes a narrative evaluation of the teacher’s strengths and challenges, looking forward to goals for the next year.
HP: Who does the evaluations?
MH: The teachers are divided fairly evenly into three groups, based on subject matter. At PJA, these groups are General Studies, Jewish & Hebrew Studies, and Specialists (music, art, dance, etc.) Each of these areas has a supervisor, although the other supervisors frequently drop in on other classrooms as well. There is a lot of overlap and cross-communication and collaboration between the supervisors.
In the middle of our nation’s major recession there are signs of an upturn here and there, but in the meantime, we are struggling to fund the most valuable piece of our future: Education. Unemployment is high, inflation is real and people are having trouble making ends meet. Simply put, there is less money to go around. So is it really any surprise that recent ballot measures asking Oregon taxpayers for even more money have failed? Where do Oregonians draw the line? To hopefully find an answer, I decided to take a look at our past.
As I reviewed Oregon’s ballot measures for the past 40 years, I noticed some not-so surprising patterns. Schools only asked for more taxpayer dollars during tough economic times. Schools suffer when people are making and taking home less money. Accordingly, during times of economic prosperity, Oregon would go years without a mention of educational funding on the ballot.
In general, voters have failed nearly every measure that proposed a tax hike to cover education costs. Since 1970, voters have failed at least 10 such ballot measures. Most recently last month, two local measures to fund education failed. Oregon City voters overwhelming turned down measure 3-376. It’s failure has forced the district to cut two school weeks from the 2010-2011 year in addition to numerous other deep cuts they have already made. Portlanders failed measure 26-121, which was earmarked for improving and repairing facilities.
I should note that voters have made some exceptions. Some measures have passed to keep schools open, keep class sizes down, and retain teacher jobs (Oregon Ballot Measure 2 in 1987; Oregon Ballot Measures 66 and 67 in 2010; and Portland Public School Measure 26-122 in 2011, respectively). But what did taxpayers really agree to? Measure 2 continued levies that were already in place; Measures 66 and 67 taxed businesses and the wealthiest Oregonians; and two other measures in the 1990’s allotted lottery funds for education. In most cases, the average citizen wasn’t giving up much.
There were tears in the hall again today. No, I don’t mean a child was crying. It was a teacher.
Many teachers have been laid off from their positions for next year. It is a hard time in the year already. It’s the time when we teachers have to say good-bye to the kids we’ve come to know and love, and for some of us, it’s time to say good-bye to the profession that we have extensively trained to do, and one that we feel is meaningful and important.
Unlike the business world, our customers have not disappeared. They need us more than ever. Many more kids take home food for the weekends. Many more kids come to school with learning delays and unstable situations at home. Our schools need to ramp up, but instead we are under attack.
I hear all the talk about how we need to change the system. Meanwhile, the funding is held hostage—no one wants to pay for the children. It’s funny, because in houses across the country and world, kids bring in no income and yet families will go to great sacrifices for their children. But as a society, we can’t seem to do that for the education of our children. We teachers generate no money and yet we “feed” children. We feed them knowledge, feed their self-esteem, and in doing so, we feed society. Yet, society is starving us.
In a blog post a few weeks ago, Liz Hummer wondered if the world uses too much edu-speak, too much jargon. She pointed out that jargon can remove us from what we are really talking about and it can turn people off from becoming part of the conversation.
She was right. Now, more than ever, Oregonians need to be joining the conversation about how we can improve our public education system, not shying away because they don’t have the facts, they can’t fathom the figures, or they aren’t familiar with the terminology.
In fact, many Oregonians aren’t familiar with the jargon of public education and who can blame them? Too many of us think we don’t have the time or the resources to really understand what a state public education budget of $5.7 billion means for our school district, or what a graduation rate of 66% means for the local economy. Even for data junkies, it can be overwhelming to try and find meaningful information. That’s why Chalkboard created the Open Books Project.